Brought together by Prince

My son went out to Paisley Park last night, before it rained. He wanted to see the crowd, the scene, the memorials – and be part of them – that continued to gather outside the recording studio complex where Prince had died last Thursday morning.

“There are a lot of people,” he said, calling me on his way back.

There sure are.

A lot of people, a lot of tributes.

Fans clutching flowers and homemade signs at Paisley Park or First Avenue, the club in downtown Minneapolis where the young Prince often performed, fans posting videos on Facebook or calling up his songs on their smart phones. Bridges, ballparks, Broadway, landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower – all lit up in purple light. Musicians and singers from classic rocker Bruce Springsteen to the cast of the hit Broadway show “Hamilton” to the country band Little Big Town to the falsetto-voiced pop star Adam Levine singing Prince songs on stage. The 92-year-old magazine the New Yorker quickly coming up with a new cover for this week’s issue: a painting of purple rain drops falling against a purple background.

Why such an outpouring of grief, respect, tribute for Prince, the 57-year-old musician from the Twin Cities?

Many of the reasons are so clear and have been stated so often I am only going to quickly list them here: he was a musical genius, not a word to throw around lightly, of course. But he was: a brilliant composer, who could play – and sometimes did – every instrument on albums he recorded. Not just a few tooted notes on a horn, or a simple strum on a bass guitar. He was exceptional at them all. Exceptional. He fused so many forms of modern music – blues, jazz, pop, funk, rhythm-and-blues, hip-hop. The hard-rock guitar solo that crescendos in his pop-funk-blues hit “When Doves Cry” is unforgettable. It’s not just that he fused all these styles and created almost a new form of music, and certainly a new style called the “Minneapolis Sound.” It’s that he could be a master within each of those forms. Jack of all styles, master of them all, too.

I said I was going to make a list and then I strayed into a longer discussion.

Here’s more of the list: he played and sang with such intensity and passion, whether rocking out or dancing, or in ballads. His live shows were amazing. You got your money’s worth if you went (Elton John called Prince the greatest entertainer he’s ever seen). He fought the corporate system, something most regular Americans could relate to. He became his own industry in the long-held American tradition of a self-made man: a successful business owner with several dozen employees, built his own state-of-the-art recording studio. He shared his musical talents: many other musicians have sung his praises in recent days for his collaborative heart – how he would write songs for others to help artists get their start, or revive an aging singer’s career; how he supported new bands. He was committed to his religion. And he was committed to his home state, one of the most remarkable qualities about a performer who was so shy, and yet so easily identifiable. He stood out in Minnesota, and maybe could have lived more anonymously in the big crowds of L.A. or New York. He even tried L.A. for a while, but never did go Hollywood: he lived in Minnesota, rooted for Minnesota sports teams, shopped locally (!). Would nod at a fan when he was recognized. There have long been jokes about Minnesotans’ inferiority complexes – Garrison Keillor has made great radio and literary hay by joking Minnesotans are pretty much satisfied with simply being “above average.” So it meant something, it was a compliment, when Prince showed repeatedly that he preferred his home state.

He was flawed, of course. Two failed marriages. He made a couple movies after “Purple Rain” that were stinkers. He could be a tough businessman, tough on employees and reporters in his insistence on secrecy and control, tough in the studio as he demanded perfection. But he often owned up to his flaws and would apologize. He was accountable, in other words, for his behavior – something so many celebrities and very wealthy people have forgotten to be.

So, we have so many reasons to have liked Prince – to admire, respect, even be awed by him. That’s why we celebrate who he was. That’s why we grieve who we have lost. My son took a photo at Paisley Park last night that showed the semi-truck/bus that Prince would take on tour. My son noted the irony: “he’ll never tour again.”

• • • •

I am going to play pop psychologist for a moment, though, too.

In recent days, I have talked with a couple of people who were surprised by the outpouring of love for Prince. These were people who are not especially pop or rock music fans, or who are from an older generation. One was a man almost 80, who watched the TV news and understood that Prince was a great musician but did not get why even casual fans have been so moved by his death.

I thought about that for a little bit. I’m kind of a casual fan now, although when I was young I bought and played and replayed many of Prince’s albums. (Prince was a couple of years older than I am, and his first two big hit albums were released when I was in my early 20s.) I was one of those who was shaken last Thursday: my friend Tom Berg sent me a couple of text messages saying news was breaking that a body had been found at Paisley Park and that it was suspected to be Prince’s. I turned on WCCO Radio from Minneapolis and, within a few minutes, one of its reporters at the scene at Paisley Park reported live on the air that authorities had confirmed Prince’s death. I texted Tom back a bunch of times with that news. 

So why were so many jolted, why did surprise and then grief pour from so many of us? Is there something more than just Prince’s being a wonderful musician or dying so young?

For Minnesotans, sure.

I am a Minnesotan, too, and have always been proud that Prince was – and remained – one of us.

But in a strange way – and I don’t mean to sidestep the fact that he has died – I wonder if we all needed this. Needed it now. Needed to be brought together by Prince’s death.

Don’t get me wrong on this. I am not saying it is good he died. But I am wondering if, in his death, some good things are happening.

It seems this has been such a long, difficult past couple of years. Terrorism attacks around the world. An ugly, long presidential election campaign that has been full of rancor – and now has become tedious in its rancor and divisiveness. Racial tension in so many American cities, so many American homes.

It has been hard.

But somehow, all of a sudden, it seems as if we could all breathe together again – as we mourn, as we celebrate, as we remember Prince.

These moments happen in our history. On the national level: The Pearl Harbor attack. The assassination of President Kennedy. The 9/11 attacks. More locally, incidents like tornadoes or floods. For as divided as we sometimes are as a country or a people, it is always amazing to me how we can also pull together.

It’s not just at times of tragedy that we do. The nation stopped, too, in the summer of 1969 to watch Neil Armstrong take man’s first step on the moon. When Howard Sinker, the online editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, shared on Facebook an image of the Star Tribune’s 13062259_862850668375_2630776886910362501_ncover the day after Prince’s death, I immediately thought of two other front pages from the Star Tribune that looked very similar and reflected two other events that also had brought the whole state, the whole region together: the front pages the day after the Minnesota Twins had won the 1987 and the 1991 World Series.

We lost Prince. But we have also been reminded, I think, through him that America can be be good. Still is good.

Maybe we all needed that reminder. And maybe we needed to have something in common again — to rally around something good, Prince’s music, and to join, emotionally, around the same thing: our shock, our sadness, at losing him.

And maybe that is important in this time when politicians like to tell us all that is wrong with America. Prince worked hard, very hard. He cared about quality in the products, if you will, that his customers – his fans – bought. He had passion for what he did. Like great inventors of the American past, he saw new ways of doing things – then had the drive and belief to do them. He believed in community, and often put his money – all kinds of stories of his charitable giving have surfaced – where his community was.

Maybe, in addition to honoring his music, some of us are thankful for all this. The soft-spoken, shy but intelligent Prince showed that we don’t have to be an ugly, shouting nation, that our capacity for greatness and brilliance still exists and can be achieved not through vitriol but through the age-old qualities of trying to be a decent person, through hard work, commitment, and even – when you’re rocking a guitar solo under stage lights – through the pleasure of creativity and art.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I am drawing too many big, broad conclusions from Prince’s death.

For now, though, let me believe I’m right.  

Friends’ new books

I always like it when I can promote new books by people I know.

Here are four that have been released in the last few weeks, or last two or three days. Two novels, two poetry collections:

Anthony Neil Smith’s fourth volume in his Billy Lafitte series, Holy Death, is out in print and e-book. Order here. If you’re not familiar with Smith’s crime writing in general or the Lafitte series specifically, he gives you quite an intense ride. Lafitte makes for a rogue, unkillable protagonist, and the books are hard-boiled crime, mostly set in rural Minnesota and rural North Dakota and, in Holy Death, set on the Gulf Coast, as well. 

Joe Wilkins has a new poetry collection, When We Were Birds, from the University of Arkansas Press, with a front-cover blurb by Billy Collins. Order here. Wilkins writes fiction and creative nonfiction, but I think I like his poetry the best — it’s lyrical and rugged at the same time. Flat-out, he’s good.

Jamie Lee Scott, the best-selling mystery writer from Forest City, has written a new book in a different genre — romance. Her novella The Remingtons: Recipe for Love was released last week. Order here.

• My friends at Kind of a Hurricane Press, the Florida-based publishers who have accepted several of my poems for their online journals and print anthologies, have released a new anthology, Happy Holidays. The print version can be ordered here, and the e-book can be downloaded for free here. Kind of a Hurricane typically publishes a range of work from writers around the world, often edgy or experimental. So it will be interesting to read what its authors have to say about holidays. I just downloaded it!

Lincoln at Cooper Union

I know not every presidential candidate is going to be the next Abraham Lincoln. Who, really, could be? But as I watch this year’s debates, listen to news conferences and interviews, read stories and commentaries, I feel compelled to ask if modern-day candidates could not at least try to behave at least a bit more like Lincoln.

And, to ask of us, as voters and citizens, why we can’t expect our candidates to behave a little more like Lincoln, too. Pc0830000

Today is the anniversary of Lincoln’s historic anti-slavery speech at Cooper Union in New York when he was running for election in 1860. What he said, and how the large crowd responded, show that an intelligent candidate offering intelligent, well-reasoned, constructive arguments and ideas can have an effect on voters. It can happen. The burden is on the candidates  — but also on us — to make it so.

This quotes from today’s The Writers Almanac with Garrison Keillor:

It was on this date in 1860 that presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln gave a speech against slavery at Cooper Union in New York City. The popular pro-slavery argument of the day argued that Congress had no right to regulate slavery in new territories. The Dred Scott case of 1857 upheld that viewpoint, maintaining that the framers of the Constitution did not intend Congress to limit slavery. Lincoln believed that decision was wrong, and he spent months before the speech researching the positions of the 39 Founding Fathers on the issue of slavery.

That evening, the great hall was filled with 1,500 New Yorkers, curious to see this candidate, a lawyer who had very little formal education, a man whom they knew something of from his series of highly publicized debates with Douglas. One eyewitness remarked: “When Lincoln rose to speak, I was greatly disappointed. He was tall, tall, – oh, how tall! and so angular and awkward that I had, for an instant, a feeling of pity for so ungainly a man.” Once Lincoln began to speak, however, “his face lighted up as with an inward fire; the whole man was transfigured. I forgot his clothes, his personal appearance, and his individual peculiarities. Presently, forgetting myself, I was on my feet like the rest, yelling like a wild [man], cheering this wonderful man.”

Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, was not present, but he had read the speech beforehand. It was, he said, “constructed with a view to accuracy of statement, simplicity of language, and unity of thought. In some respects like a lawyer’s brief, it was logical, temperate in tone, powerful – irresistibly driving conviction home to men’s reasons and their souls.”

The speech – one of his longest and one of his least-quoted – was reprinted widely; theNew York Times printed it in its entirety, on the front page, the next day. It made Lincoln famous, and he was invited to speak at engagements all over the country. That summer, the Republican Party named him their candidate for the 1860 presidential election.

He ended the speech with the words, “Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Favorite books of 2015

In no particular order, here are the best new books I read in 2015: novels, poetry collections, history. The links will take you to more information about the books.

Worm by Anthony Neil Smith. A crime novel in the new North Dakota of oil fields and swarms of people looking to make a lot of fast money. When one of the main bad guys is a no-rules, murderous war criminal from the former Yugoslavia who lives in an RV in the Walmart parking lot and is an oil-rig foreman, you know you are in the hard-boiled world of fiction in which Smith excels. The novel is raw and violent, and it needs to be — Smith’s characters are living a raw and violent existence. Many characters are unredeemable. But not all: some scurry, even in the midst of doing some pretty evil things, to reclaim their humanity, decency — and their hope.

Vanilla Lies by Bartenn Mills. The Forest City, Iowa, crime novelist set her latest book in both the high levels and fringes of Hollywood, plots it with twists, turns and a few long-held secrets, and gives us a protagonist who’s hardly as plain as her last name makes her sound.

Goodnight, Mr. Wodehouse by Faith Sullivan. A terrific new novel by the Minnesota author of The Cape Ann, Gardenias and others. This a prequel to The Cape Ann, set in a fictional southwestern Minnesota small town. Its story goes from 1900 through the Great Depression, and brings back some beloved characters from The Cape Ann. The characters live, and so do we — which means we share their emotions, the good and, often in this novel, their anguish and grief.

Insurgent Democracy: The Nonpartisan League in North American Politics, by Michael J. Lansing. A well-researched and strong read about a period of political upheaval in the Midwest — with moments of economic hope for lower-income and rural residents; but also violence; unconstitutional behavior by Minnesota’s top politicians — that ran parallel to the start of World War I and helped paved the way for the Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota,

Running to the Fire by Tim Bascom. The second memoir by Bascom set in the Ethopia of his youth. His parents were missionaries. They, the author and his two brothers witness and live in the events of the late-1970s civil war, a time of fear and courage, and, sometimes, even grace.

Rel[am]ent by Jamison Crabtree. A soul-baring poetry collection driven by grief and loneliness.

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough: America’s best-known historian and biographer has written a compelling biography of the pioneers of motorized flight. The Wrights’ success did not come from luck or a few trial-and-error flights. Rather, it was a result of great engineering, careful science, and a close-knit family and small circle of friends who believed in the brothers’ insistence on getting it right. And they did.

Symphony for the City of the Dead by M.T. Anderson: A book that is part history and part biography, this explores how the composer Dmitri Shostakovich survived the Soviet Union’s Great Terror of the 1930s — which killed many of his family and friends — to write music that lifted the souls of the people of his hometown of Leningrad, especially during the siege of 1941 in World War II, but also in the aftermath of the slaughter, show trials, betrayals and disappearance of millions in the 1930s.

Uncertain Beginnings by Jamie Lee Scott. It’s not a full novel, but a novella that kicks off a new crime series by the best-selling Forest City, Iowa, author. She does her homework — ride-alongs with police, interviews with medical examiners, etc. — and it shows in her books.

(I know that I’ve included books by authors I know. But they are not shameless plugs. I’ve been fortunate to live or work in two cities that are home to some very talented writers.)

 

 

 

 

Marshall Festival 2015 starts Thursday

Here’s a reminder that Marshall Festival 2015 is about to start at Southwest Minnesota State University. It runs Thursday through Saturday.

There’s a good lineup of authors. Some are reading from their works, others are will be leading panel discussions. The schedule has a strong emphasis on writers who are from, or who write about, the prairie or regional writers in general. One discussion will, in fact, talk about “promoting and preserving rural literature.”

That may mean writing about farm life or small towns, or enjoying nature under the open skies of the Midwest. But it doesn’t have mean that: Another panel discussion, led by SMSU English Department Chairman Neil Smith and Ben Sobieck, is about one of the most contemporary of topics  — “Writing the Oil Boom: The New North Dakota.” Smith has already done that very well, with his novel Worm showing the harsh and seamy side of an oil boom that’s jammed thousands of people together in conditions that have often overwhelmed North Dakota’s infrastructure, as well as the human spirit. It’s like the Old West and a gold rush at the same time, a lot of people looking for a lot of money fast.

Other panels will focus on practical aspects of writing and publishing.

The lineup of readers and speakers includes several current and retired SMSU professors and alumni, and other authors from the region. There will also be a reading from Yellow Medicine Review, the literary journal published by SMSU that highlights indigenous authors.

I am looking forward to hearing the great Phil Dacey read Friday night. And SMSU professor Susan McLean — who has been riding a great wave of critical praise from places like the New York Times and the (London) Times Literary Supplement for her own original formal-verse poetry as well as her translations of the Roman poet Martial — is part of a panel discussion Saturday afternoon.

I will be part of a joint reading at 1 p.m. Thursday, along with Alan Davis, a writer and professor at Minnesota State University, Moorhead.

Exposing Thoreau, and a few other good readsoem

The mid-19th century writer and thinker Henry David Thoreau has long been a revered figure in America — a symbol of American individualism and self-reliance, and often cited when we want to point out the problems of excessive materialism and stressful modern life. He’s famous for, among things, saying life can be better if we slow down and “simplify, simplify, simplify.”

He was also a strong and consistent opponent of slavery, and, was and remains important in reminding us to care for and appreciate nature.

A story in the recent issue of The New Yorker by Kathryn Schulz says, however, that there’s not much else to like or respect about Thoreau. He was cranky, cold-hearted and his philosophies were wildly inconsistent. He lived in a very narrow and sheltered slice of the world, and was naive about the rest of the world — especially so with the poor and farmers. He romanticized both groups and failed to fully grasp the hardships of poverty or 19th-century farm life. His naivete fed an arrogance that makes much of his philosophy and advice impractical and, at times, worthy of ridicule, Schulz says.

Here’s the story. It’s a thoughtful piece, and it’s not too long, but at the same time effectively punctures Thoreau’s status.

•••

Here are links to a couple of books I just finished reading. I recommend them both:

Vanilla Lies, a suspense novel by Forest City, Iowa, author Bartenn Mills.

The Wright Brothers, a short but compelling and informative biography of the inventors of and first to fly a motorized airplane, by the renowned historian David McCullough.

And then, this poem by Lauren K. Alleyne. I heard her read it Monday night, October 12, at Waldorf College — one of many tough-subject poems she read in what seems to be an ongoing exploration of grief, the hardness of life and the grace that we can still find in it.